Study Finds Median Wealth For Single Black Women at $5

That's the headline for an article that came out in the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette. It's based on this study written by sociologist Mariko Chang. Before I say anymore, I want to emphasize the importance of this study, and the importance of understanding the wealth gap as we try to understand racial disparities. I have seen some really good pieces on the black-white wealth gap (Dalton Conley's book is indispensable) but this is one of the first I've seen focusing on women of color, with a specific emphasis on single women of color. I highly, highly recommend that regulars here read the study.


Do that, and you'll be ahead of almost everyone writing and twittering about the study. For the most part they're reading the Gazette story, which doesn't do the issue justice. The headline--there is no other way to say this--lazily conflates black women with black women age 36-49, while the article itself lazily conflates black women in that age group with all women of color in that age group. The headline announces, presumably, that all single black women are worth $5. The article then qualifies the claim:

Among the most startling revelations in the wealth data is that while single white women in the prime of their working years (ages 36 to 49) have a median wealth of $42,600 (still only 61 percent of their single white male counterparts), the median wealth for single black women is only $5. 

This is alarming. But it's also inaccurate. From the study:

Young women ages 18-35, whether white or non-white, are beginning their adult years with a median wealth of zero, meaning that at least half of women in this age group had no wealth or had debts greater than the value of their assets (see Table 3). However, while white women in the prime working years of ages 36-49 have a median wealth of $42,600 (still only 61% of their white male counterparts), the median wealth for women of color is only $5.

This is still really alarming. But obviously, conclusions about women of color--all nonwhite women and Latinas of all races, according to the study-- of a certain age, are very different than conclusions about black women in particular. Professor Chang was kind enough to talk to me this evening and verified that $5 dollar stat applied to women of color as a whole, and not just black women.

I understand the urge to dismiss this as a relatively minor error in a story, and to go to the central core truth--the wealth gap between black women and white women is, sprawling and horrifying. If we forget to dot a few I's while making that point, who cares? The problems with this kind of logic are many. It trades on the credibility of those of us who are legitimately concerned about the issue, in hopes of raising the alarm. But the discerning reader knows that if we'll fudge minor facts for a few page views, why not bigger ones? Teenage pregnancy is a problem. But it doesn't follow that we should then tell teens that sex will kill you.

Second this kind of reporting turns a serious problem into a kind of show which people from all political points of view use to graphically (if erroneously) drive home their point--mainly, it sucks to be a single black woman. Which leads to the third problem, the entire framing fits into a narrative of single black female tragedy that's been everywhere of late. If you think about it, there's really no reason why this story couldn't have gone in another (though equally erroneous) direction and declared "Study Finds Median Wealth For Single Latinas At $5." Why didn't it? Latinos are this country's largest minority. Until they are not.

I've seen this story floating around the net all day today, with all kinds of reactions of horror and no sense that something is amiss. We're all customers here. We deserve to have the wealth gap--arguably the preeminent racial issue of our time--discussed seriously. In that endeavor we should reject articles that turn stats into porn.

Read the study yourself. And suffer only the essential proxies. 
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Ta-Nehisi Coates is a national correspondent at The Atlantic, where he writes about culture, politics, and social issues. He is the author of the memoir The Beautiful Struggle.

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